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Television

Triumph of the West

If at the beginning of the 15th century you’d had to predict who was going to dominate the world for the next 500 years, the answer would surely have been China.

12 March 2011

12:00 AM

12 March 2011

12:00 AM

If at the beginning of the 15th century you’d had to predict who was going to dominate the world for the next 500 years, the answer would surely have been China.

If at the beginning of the 15th century you’d had to predict who was going to dominate the world for the next 500 years, the answer would surely have been China. From the sophistication of its sanitation system to the size of its fleet, China — under the Emperor Zhu Di and his eunuch naval commander Cheng Ho — was a country going places. Its mighty, 400-foot-long ships sailed as far as Malindi on the East African coast and probably Australia. It had invented the clock and, of course, gunpowder.

Europe, during the same period, was — relatively speaking — a stagnant, backward mess. Architecturally, it had nothing modern that could match the glories of the Forbidden City in Peking or imperial Nanjing. It was decidedly lacking in Confucian harmony and cohesion: a mishmash of violent, squabbling, plague-ravaged city states and warring kingdoms. Between 1330 and 1479, one quarter of deaths among the English aristocracy was violent.

By the end of the century, though, something had changed. Columbus, in a ship one tenth the size of Cheng Ho’s, had discovered the New World, while Vasco da Gama had opened a new trade route to India. And by 1842, the power imbalance had grown so great that to punish China for confiscating some of its opium Britain was able to demand reparations, including $21 million, the opening of five trade treaty ports and the establishment of a crown colony on Hong Kong.

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Where did Europe get it so right and the Chinese so badly wrong? This was the question asked by Niall Ferguson in the first episode of his six-part series Civilisation: Is the West History? (Channel 4, Sunday). I can’t say I’ve been a particular fan of his earlier stuff, which has always struck me as a bit abstruse and pleased with itself. But this new one looks set to be an absolute cracker: cogent, urgent, persuasive and compelling.

The reason for the triumph of the West, Ferguson argues, was that it perfected six ‘Killer apps’. These were: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. (Yep: looking forward to lots of political incorrectness on the last one…)

Presumably, Channel 4 is hoping that its left-liberal audience won’t notice but this is a spectacularly right-wing thesis. What Ferguson is really saying is that all those supposed social advances Western culture has made in the past century — the welfare state, the pursuit of equality, the notion that there must be ‘limits to growth’ — are the very things that will destroy it. In short: greed, competition, free markets and resource-depletion are good; bunny-hugging, diversity awareness training, renewable energy and the EU are the barbarians at the gates.

He’s absolutely totally bloody right, of course, as we’re glimpsing in the slow-motion train crash that is Jamie’s Dream School (Channel 4, Wednesday). Jamie, as you know, has set up a Dream School for ‘unteachable’ kids, who are to be inspired by a ‘dream’ selection of teachers including David Starkey, Mary Beard, Rolf Harris, Simon Callow and — shudder, gnash teeth, slash one’s wrists — Cherie Blair (teaching human rights!) and Alastair Campbell (politics).

Tragically, the project has been doomed from the off, thanks to at least one fatal flaw: the headmaster — or ‘head teacher’, as I’m sure he calls himself — is one of those child-centred progressives who thinks pedagogy is wrong and that education is a process of ‘learning facilitation’ which need only take place if the kids can be bothered.

Every one of the nightmare kids in this nightmare school has drunk deep of this philosophy. If there were a GCSE in knowing their rights, knowing when a teacher’s behaviour has been ‘well out of order’, taking umbrage and demanding unearned respect, then these horrors would undoubtedly all get A*s. Maybe it’s fun in a lions-eating-Christians kind of way to watch someone like David Starkey being torn to pieces by these savages. But only for a few seconds. After that it gets boring. Then very, very depressing. Why should a civilised, intelligent, decent, clever man like Starkey be forced to squander his expertise in this humiliating way? What’s the point?

There’s a reason why Lad’s Army (where delinquent teenagers are brought to order at an authentic National Service-style boot camp) ran to so many series and spawned so many offshoots. It’s because having first identified the problem (today’s teenagers are pampered, have no self-discipline and no work ethic), it then resolved it in a hugely satisfying and entertaining way. Because the training NCOs on the course had real sanctions at their disposal (from press-ups and bog scrubbing to dismissal from the course), the lads had no option but to knuckle under. Many of them had their lives transformed by the experience.

This can’t and won’t happen with Dream School because the kids are overindulged. Having experienced the quasi-military discipline of professional kitchens, Jamie ought to understand this. But when there was a showdown between the liberal headmaster and David Starkey over who should be in charge — kids or grown-up — Jamie took the headmaster’s side. We’re doomed, I tell you. Doomed.

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